The Pace of Play Debate: Any Prospect of a Concrete Resolution?

Speed of play has been one of the most discussed topics in world golf over the last decade. In 2002, when Padraig Harrington and Retief Goosen were embroiled in the race for the European Tour money list title, the latter labelled the former ‘the slowest player on tour.’ Matters came to a head again in 2005, when Ben Crane, arguably the slowest on tour, was left standing over his approach on the 17th hole at the Booz Allen Classic by an enraged Rory Sabbatini. Whilst Sabbatini’s etiquette was rightly called into question, Crane needed to, and honourably did, shield some of the blame, affirming that “I’m doing all I can, I need to work on picking up the pace, and I understand that.” Unfortunately, there is still a large discrepancy between his words and his actions. Don’t worry, though: “I’m trying… it’s just going to take a little more time (2011).” Evidently, six years hasn’t been enough to make a fundamental change. At some stage in the near future, debate has to transfer to policy, because slow play is attracting negative press. Even the quickest players on tour recognise a difference in styles, and tolerate those that take a little more time over their shots, but where do we draw the line? Putting an offending group on the clock, and not accounting for variations within that group, is unjust, and handing out meagre fines to offenders is wholly inadequate, given the enormous prize pools on offer week in, week out.

Slow play is something that permeates every level of the game, from professional golf to club golf. Every golfer out there has, at some stage or another, been affected by slow play, whether it be someone (not everyone!) in the group ahead, or a playing partner. It is horribly tedious, affects our mental attitude, and, by extension, our own play. Some would argue that it is the individual’s responsibility to be in stringent control of his or her emotions, but this introduces another side to the debate. Golf is a game that relies on good relationships and a devout adherence to etiquette, and etiquette encompasses making sure the way you conduct yourself doesn’t adversely affect others. To say that golfers should be entirely focused on their own game is to deny that one player’s game impacts upon others in the group, and we all know what an erroneous view that is. How often do golfers allude to feeding off each other’s positive momentum? Being exposed to positives unfortunately means being exposed to negatives, and negatives arise when players with contrasting views on how to play the game are grouped together (Crane and Sabbatini.) To combat this, the various Tours need to collaborate and come up with solutions and punishments that are religiously applied.

The first thing that needs to be done is to abolish the hopelessly antiquated system of monetary punishments. Lee Trevino, in an interview with www.pgatour.com, raised some very interesting points, namely the need to bring back a two stroke penalty. What’s more, the implementation of stroke penalties is, in itself, an indirect fine. Ludicrously, there is provision for awarding a one stroke penalty, but we have to go back to 1992 to see its last implementation. The problem is that, whilst it is widely recognised as an issue, no official is prepared to put their neck on the line, and perhaps that comes down to different definitions of what constitutes slow play. On the PGA of America website, in its section on golfing etiquette, it states that no more than 45 seconds should be taken over any shot. When we cross reference this information with a piece by the Wall Street Journal earlier this year, where various players were timed, we start to see why problems are not subsiding. At the Arnold Palmer Invitational, only one player out of those measured took longer, on average, than 45 seconds: Kevin Na. This surely suggests that the parameters of slow play need to be re-evaluated. If only one player is taking longer than the allotted time, and if he is only doing so on the putting green, then it is no
surprise that we haven’t seen a shot penalty awarded in nearly 20 years. If only one player is taking longer than the allotted time, and the general
consensus is that there is a massive issue with slow play in golf, isn’t it obvious that the allotted time for a shot needs to be modified? Modification is essential, but ultimately means nothing if a concrete penalty isn’t agreed upon and adhered to.

So, what is the solution? Part of the problem is that those responsible don’t see slow play as an issue, and who can blame them, given the lack of new legislation from above. When Ben Crane makes comments such as “I know there is something I have to change in my life… what are you going to change, your attitude?”, it suggests that talk of speeding up is only for the cameras. There simply hasn’t been enough pressure to make him play quicker. General disgruntlement isn’t going to facilitate change. Penalty shots will.

Results from the Arnold Palmer Invitational present a starting point. From the fairway, the quickest player was Rickie Fowler at 13.9 seconds. The slowest was Sergio Garcia at 41.4 seconds. On the green, Fowler took an average of 12.3 seconds over each putt, and Kevin Na, shockingly, took 47.6 seconds. (Is it not a sign that the two quickest putters were Fowler and McDowell?!) Fowler may be extremely quick, but by that logic, Na is extremely slow. Which is more damaging? For putting, the average between the two is 29.95 seconds. This clearly isn’t a fair limit for those on the slower side of average. So, if we average this figure with Na’s time, we get 38.775 seconds. Following the same methodology with shots from the fairway, the figure is 34.45 seconds. There you have it: set the limit for putting at 39 seconds, and the limit from the fairway at 35 seconds. Anyone taking longer is liable for a 2 shot penalty. It is empirically fair and logically sound. Reassess every year. Problems solved.

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4 Comments

  1. Interesting points you make, but I’m more concerned about the slow foursome playing in front of me at my course than I am about millionaire pros playing in twosomes on the PGA tour.
    I think on the amateur side it’s not so much a problem of how much time they take over a shot but how much time they waste getting to the balls on the course, fiddling around on the tee box, and yacking with each other when someone in the group should be hitting.
    At the PGA level and the amateur level, players should be penalized if they can’t keep up with the group in fron of them… no need for any shot clocks.

  2. I think on the tours there does need to be some sort of benchmark time set. There are reasons why fast players will, temporarily, get out of position on course – a lost ball or a tricky ruling – doesn’t mean they’re slow players though. When you look at the discrepancy between Fowler and Na on the greens, it becomes pretty clearcut. 35 seconds more – 30 putts, that’s an extra 18 minutes just on the green alone. It’s fair to assume there’s a similar difference on shots as well – could be half an hour in total then that Na takes to faff around on the course compared to Fowler – that isn’t right.

    I also agree though that the only way to make this stick is to enforce penalty strokes. Few of these guys are concerned with taking a financial hit, but if it means making the cut or not… they might just change their ways!

  3. Sir,
    I have just posted a “Topic for Discussion” for my club A.G.M. I am requesting that my home club (www.westportgolfclub.com) introduce a local rule – Ready to Play – for all competitions in 2012. The rule will allow a golfer to tee off during the round whem he/she is ready and not play in order of score. (not applicable for matchplay events.)

    The Slow Play debate is one that is constantly discussed out on the course, in the car park and outside church by the members but nobody seems to be anxious to discuss it at the only forum that matters.

    Club golf competitions normally takes its lead from either the European Tour or the P.G.A. Tour; the best recent examples of this were Ian Woosnam “too many clubs in the bag” and Dustin Johnson “when is a bunker, not a bunker.”

    I will report back after the A.G.M.

    • When is the AGM and, if it has passed, how did it go?

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